EL SEGUNDO, CA — 23 games into the 2011-12 regular season, the Los Angeles Kings have earned a 12-8-3 record, good for 28 points, one point behind the Dallas Stars for the Pacific Division lead, and just three points behind the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks.
But remaining in contention for the top spots in their division and conference has been more of a struggle than expected, giving fans a lot to rant and rave about.
Fortunately, one feel-good story came out last week, providing a bit of a respite from the constant moaning and groaning about everything that people perceive to be wrong with the Kings.
That story broke on November 23, when right wing heavyweight enforcer Kevin Westgarth scored his first National Hockey League goal at 5:29 of the second period at Dallas.
Yes, you read that right, Westgarth, who is known much more for his pugilistic prowess than for his offensive talent, actually buried one into an opponent’s net for a change.
After Westgarth’s goal, there were numerous rumors of flying pigs being spotted in Southern California, and that the Pacific Ocean had dried up. All proved to be false.
Seriously speaking, when a player who is not expected to score goals manages to put one into the back of the net, it is often the result of a puck deflecting in off his leg, or maybe it bounces in off his skate.
“Usually, for a big, rugged enforcer type, they usually score their rare goals only when a puck hits them and deflects into the net, or on a jam play in the crease,” said the 27-year-old Princeton graduate, and native of Amherstburg, Ontario.
Indeed, the goal is rarely a pretty one. But Westgarth always hoped to be different, and he got his wish when he jumped on a loose puck in the left circle, just inside the left face-off dot. He ripped a quick snap shot, picking the upper right corner of the net.
“It was cool,” he beamed. “Ideally, I wanted it to be a nice, top corner snipe.”
“I got one of those in warm-ups,” he added. “[Left wing Simon] Gagne told me that was a good shot, so I figured I’d try it out in a game, and it seemed to work.”
“We get to practice every day against two of the best goalies in the league, so if I can score top shelf against them every once in awhile, I can, hopefully, do it in a game.”
The goal was not just a pretty one. It was an important one as well, giving the Kings a 2-0 lead, putting all the pressure on the Stars.
“That was a nice turn of events,” said Westgarth. “Great forecheck by [left wing Ethan] Moreau. [Center Colin] Fraser got in on the pressure, and [the puck] went off Moreau’s skate, and there we are.”
Despite Westgarth’s efforts, the Kings coughed up their two-goal lead and lost that game in overtime, 3-2.
“At the time, it was a big goal, so it was nice to be able to do that,” Westgarth noted. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out quite like we planned, but we’ll keep pounding.”
“I would’ve liked to see him get the winning goal,” said head coach Terry Murray. “The team ended up getting him a plaque. Twenty years from now, it’ll be on his mantle, and his kids will be there, looking at it. It would’ve been pretty nice to be able to say that we won the game 2-0, or 2-1, and he’s got the winning goal.”
Westgarth will never be a speedy, highly-skilled sniper or playmaker. Nevertheless, Murray indicated that his game has improved.
“He’s come a long way,” said Murray. “I go back with Westgarth to the tryout camp in Philadelphia. You had a pretty raw player there, but here he is now. He’s put in a lot of work, paid a lot of dues. His game has really come along.”
“Going back to the playoffs last year against San Jose, he was in the lineup because of being able to play the game,” added Murray. “It wasn’t that he’s that loaded gun kind of guy—you need the heavyweight in the lineup. He was playing well.”
“We’re seeing some results. The goal the other night was a beautiful goal. It was a catch-and-release play, and it’s the right attitude of pucks to the net right away. He’s moving his game forward as a player who’s contributing in other ways now.”
Most of us will never have the experience of scoring a goal in the NHL. So what did it feel like for Westgarth to score his first?
“In some ways, it was pretty anti-climactic,” he noted. “When it goes in, it just seems easy. But then, you realize that was my 73rd game. It’s easy when it goes in. It’s like anything else. When it goes right, it feels like child’s play, but when it’s not going well, it feels like you’re struggling all the time. But I look forward to doing it again.”
Friends and family quickly sent their congratulations, mostly via text message.
“It was pretty cool to get all those messages,” said Westgarth. “Usually, when I get off the ice, there’s a text message from my wife, and maybe my parents. That day, I had close to thirty messages.”
“It was nice to feel the support, and then there were a lot of the fans on Twitter, they really lit it up for me, so that was pretty cool, to feel the support.”
Fans on Twitter did more than “light it up” for him.
“My wife told me I was trending worldwide, at the time,” Westgarth noted. “I was surprised.”
When he skated back to the bench after scoring, Westgarth was congratulated by his teammates.
“[I said], ‘great shot! Congrats!’ It’s a big moment for him,” said center Jarret Stoll. “Whenever he scores in practice, it’s always high glove. For his first goal to be scored like that… .”
“We all congratulated him,” said defenseman Jack Johnson. “We all thought it was awesome. He’s played hard for us, he’s been a great guy, we were all just really happy he got his first one. Hopefully, he’s got many more to come.”
Even the officials got into the act.
“I saw the referee smiling for him,” said Murray. “Those guys know him from the minors, and the role he had taken on in the minors—all the hard work and heavy work. They were happy for him.”
Westgarth is always one of the more talkative guys on the team, both on the ice and off, and that was only magnified when he scored.
“He’s always a very talkative guy,” Stoll noted. “He’s always saying stuff in the room. He was probably ‘times ten’ [in terms of being vocal] in the dressing room after that one went in.”
“To see the guys faces, they were happy for me,” said Westgarth. “It was really cool to see the replay. They panned the bench, and everyone was smiling from ear-to-ear. That makes me feel good.”
“Whether they were laughing at me, or they were happy for me—I think it was a little of both, I appreciate it either way.”
That he was finally able to get his first NHL goal after 73 career NHL games, is certainly an accomplishment. But, as reported earlier, it also came on a pretty play, a snap shot on which he picked the top corner of the net.
Very nice icing on the cake for Westgarth, who now cares only about pucks going into the back of the net, rather than how the play looked.
“[That scoring play] worked out nicely,” he noted. “Hopefully, I get as many bouncing in off my shin pads as possible. I don’t really care how they go in. It’s just great to score them.
Raw Audio Interview With Kevin Westgarth
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Kevin Westgarth (3:07)
Game Highlights (including Westgarth’s goal) via NHL Video On YouTube
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